Strategic Planning For The Ranch

Profit Per Cow, Or Per Acre?

If we focus on profit per acre, there will be a tendency to seek the right-sized cow for our environment and best practices for economic efficiency and profitability.

To ranch successfully, three profit driving ratios – cows per person, acres per cow and fed vs. grazed feed need to be kept in mind. In addition, “revenue per acre” needs to be considered.

As livestock producers we often focus on productivity per cow. But that focus, along with intensive selection for growth, hasn’t done much to improve ranch profitability over the last 40 years. In fact, it could be argued that, in constant dollars or buying power, profit per acre has even decreased. Thus, the real measure should be profit per acre or whole ranch profitability.

When we change our thinking from per cow to per acre, we begin to think of ways to improve whole ranch revenue. That’s good if we remember that “war on cost” is one of the essentials for successful ranch management.

Please understand that I don’t have a problem spending a dollar if I can reasonably expect it to return $1.50, but I don’t want to spend a dollar if it will only bring back 50¢. Too often, in our attempts to increase revenue per acre, we fail to account for all of the costs. When we attempt to increase revenue per cow, it can get even worse. We forget that when cows get bigger and produce more milk, we have to run less of them or spend significantly more for feed and supplements.

I consider money spent for water development and fencing to facilitate good grazing to have a very good cost/benefit ratio. However, you must plan well to have effective, low-maintenance structures that also have a reasonable cost relative to the expected return. In areas of good rainfall, or where irrigation is used, it’s quite easy to project a good return for grazing management.

I know a rancher who talks about the number of sections in a pasture, or cows per section. In this scenario, the cost of water development and fence per acre compared to the potential new revenue must be carefully evaluated.

Fence is an issue, but water development is a big issue. The area has brief and sometimes heavy rains which could provide water for manmade ponds or catchments. However, in its present condition, there is a lot of bare ground resulting in silt deposits filling the catchments.  The well-water quality is poor and small particles tend to adhere to the inside of pipelines making them smaller as time goes by.

In low-rainfall areas with poor water distribution, costs must be considered very carefully. The revenue increases will come from increased productivity – but at much lower rates than in higher rainfall areas – and from using areas of pastures that were not previously used for lack of water. So, assessing options is much more difficult than in situations with ample water of good quality and with greater initial carrying capacity.

While I find it relatively easy to justify spending for fence and water in most range and pasture management situations, it’s not as easy to justify the use of some other cattle improvement techniques – artificial insemination (AI), estrus synchronization (ES), individual animal records, feed supplements, etc. Though I’m sure that many of these tools have their place, I’m also sure that some can’t be cost-justified on some ranches.

Considering AI in conjunction with ES, for example, it’s important to ensure that you itemize all the costs. These include materials, drugs, semen, equipment, labor, animal gathering and handling costs. Then there’s the performance lost due to animal gathering and handling, etc. You must also make sure you don’t inflate the expected results, while deflating the results of natural service.

Sometimes, it may prove to work nicely with heifers but not with cows. Try to imagine all the unintended consequences –both good and bad. Ask yourself, “What if it were 5% better or 5% worse?” Certainly, many ideas and techniques for animal improvement have a justifiable place, but they often have intrigue and attraction beyond their value. As you complete your analysis, remember to get to the added net income per acre.   

It’s very easy to get caught up in production or profit per cow rather than profit per acre or whole ranch profit. The result can be fewer cows and poorer performance that results in less production per acre or a bigger supplementation bill – perhaps both.

If we focus on profit per acre, there will be a tendency to seek the right-sized cow for our environment and best practices for economic efficiency and profitability. 

In the final analysis profit per acre is much more important than profit per cow.

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at

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Discuss this Blog Entry 11

Gene Schriefer (not verified)
on Aug 2, 2012

Geez, what will the neighbors think if I only wean a 500 lb calf???
Should be mandatory reading for every producer and their lender! I've been tilting at this profit/acre windmill for a long time. Most of the supplementation here is energy, corn/corn silage. There was a point in time when this was cheap to grow/purchase, my guess is energy (corn)will continue to increase in cost/expense and hence cost to maintaining a too large a cow will increase.
Absolutely spot on matching the cow to the environment and then reviewing farm/ranch returns per acre.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 5, 2012

for the past 50 years i have been selectin for cows that calve by 2 years of age trouble free raise acalf and breed back with aminimum of supplement end result 900 to1100 lb mature cow it might take 5 years for acow to reach her mature size nick

james coffelt (not verified)
on Aug 22, 2012

I do simple analysis every year. Compare the production from the below 1100 pound cows, to the above 1100 pound cows. Assume they both eat roughly 2.5% of their body weight. Compare their consumption with their production. Last year the smaller group out performed the larger group by 16% on the same grass, after adjusting the stocking rate. Do the math

Taylor (not verified)
on Jun 2, 2014

If you don't mind me asking, what was the size (how many cows) in the smaller group and how many in the larger group? Thanks Taylor

Anonymous (not verified)
on Aug 22, 2012

I wish this guy could give a talk to a American Shorthorn Assc. meeting sometime.

Onemancorrals (not verified)
on Jan 8, 2013

I think the decision related to profit per acre or profit per cow will vary from one situation to another. Also, one can consider both methods of revenue and profit calculation to compare the return on overall investment. The method will further make it easier for the owner to evaluate and compare different investment options.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 16, 2014

I've thought about buying 160 acre that's 75% pasture good place for cattle. But my question is... Is it even worth my while to buy 40 to 50 head of cattle for tax purposes and I work a lot and have never had cattle before. Just give me some feed back if I'm wasting my time.

on Jul 20, 2015

The most important thing is to calculate profitability using an accrual adjusted income statement. This is not accomplished with the IRS schedule F. Once you have have the income statement then calculate return on assets ROA. Once calculated its easy to calculate ROA both per cow and per acre. Set up your own benchmarks!

on Jul 21, 2015

For these purposes I much prefer Net Income to ROA. If you are going to look at profit per cow (using any measure), I hope you just do it for fun because it can be terribly distortive. Cow carrying capacity differences due to size and milking ability along with the attendant issues of pregnancy rate, health and handling issues can easily mislead your thinking on what is truly more profitable. Key issue is to focus on profit per acre or whole ranch profit.

on Aug 26, 2015

We have some acreage currently being leased for grazing. We are planning to move there. I am trying to get a ball park figure on profit per cow per year. Acreage is currently supporting approx 80 cows. But ask as I will, I can't seem to get or find a number from anyone. Acreage is in NC mountain region. If I pay for hauling stock in and out, vet bills, and other expenses, what might I expect to profit per head per year? I have no idea. Any help would be much appreciated. Just a ball park figure would be great. Thanks

on Sep 1, 2015

Again you need to think of "profit per acre." Cow size can make a big difference in profit per cow and in profit per acre. However, your total net income is best served when profit per acre is highest. For you to get an estimate you need local help in estimating carrying capacity, feed costs and the other costs. You then need to estimate what you will sell--cull cows and open yearling heifers as well as calves. Then you need to price them according to your local market. I think a good Extension Educator from the university should be able to help a lot with this quite easily.

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What's Strategic Planning For The Ranch?

Burke Teichert provides readers with his practical take on efficient and cost-effective livestock production and ranch management.


Burke Teichert

Burke Teichert was born and raised on a family ranch in western Wyoming and earned a B.S. in ag business from Brigham Young University and M.S. in ag economics from University of Wyoming. His work...

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